Cambodia’s Supreme Court on Monday rejected the defamation conviction of deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee (NEC) Ny Chakrya citing a lack of evidence, ordering the country’s Appeal Court to hold a retrial of his case.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Ny Chakrya on charges of “defamation, malicious denunciation, and for comments intended to unlawfully coerce judicial authorities” under Articles 305, 311, and 522 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code in a Sept. 22, 2016 decision, ordering him to serve six months in prison and pay a fine of six million riel (U.S. $1,460).
The 2016 conviction followed a complaint by an investigating judge and a deputy prosecutor at the Siem Reap Provincial Court over comments Ny Chakrya allegedly made at two May 2015 press conferences for local rights group Adhoc—where he was a staffer at the time—calling for an investigation into legal irregularities related to a land dispute.
The conviction was upheld in a Dec. 15, 2016 decision by the Appeal Court.
On Monday, Supreme Court president Kong Srim ruled that neither of the lower courts proved that Ny Chakrya had made the comments he was accused of and ordered the Appeal Court to hold a retrial.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, Ny Chakrya’s lawyer Sam Sokong welcomed the court decision.
“I hope the Appeal Court will drop all of the charges against my client,” he said.
Am Sam Ath, the head of investigations for local rights group Licadho, also applauded Monday’s ruling and suggested that international pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen to release all political prisoners could result in the dismissal of Ny Chakrya’s case.
“I hope the Appeal Court will render justice for him and drop all charges,” he said.
In a statement, local rights group Licadho noted “several other discrepancies” in the Supreme Court trial, including the absence of the civil parties and their lawyers at the hearings, which it said had denied Ny Chakrya the right to confront his accusers—as was the case with the municipal court proceedings.
“Ny Chakrya’s right to prepare and conduct his defense at Phnom Penh Municipal Court and the Appeal Court was also hampered as he was held in pre-trial detention at the time, accused of being an accomplice to bribery in a separate politically-motivated case,” the group said.
Ny Chakrya and four Adhoc members were taken into custody in 2016 after being questioned by the country’s Anti-Corruption Unit amid accusations they had bribed a woman to deny that she had an affair with Kem Sokha, president of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Last week, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court delivered suspended five-year sentences to the five in a decision that international rights groups slammed as an example of Cambodia’s government using the courts to crack down on the work of civil society groups.
Licadho noted on Monday that Ny Chakrya’s case marked the first use of Article 522—publication of commentaries intended to coerce judicial authorities—which was added to Cambodia’s penal code in 2010 over objections from civil society groups who said it violates freedom of speech and criminalizes legitimate advocacy work in support of judicial reforms.
Also on Monday, the Supreme Court upheld the Appeal Court’s decision which found that state security forces were not responsible for provoking violence against activists during a 2013 protest in Phnom Penh over the forced eviction of some 3,500 families from the Boeung Kak Lake community to make way for a development project with close ties to Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
The evictees had held a hunger strike calling for a resolution to a dispute over the land, but were confronted by armed security personnel, who they say attacked them, leaving nearly a dozen people injured—six severely.
The courts have said that there is no way to track down the perpetrators of the violence.
Gneth Khun, an activist from the Boeung Kak Lake community known as “Grandma Mummy,” told RFA that she was distraught over Monday’s ruling by the Supreme Court, which she said was “biased towards the perpetrators.”
“The Supreme Court is very unjust—it ruled in favor of their people, based on favoritism and corruption,” she said.
Gneth Khun, who is nearly 80 years old and suffered injuries to her head and chest from slingshot missiles during the attack, said that five years of pursuing justice in vain had caused her to “lose faith in the courts at all levels.”
The activists who were injured in the confrontation said they will discuss with their lawyer whether to file a complaint with international human rights organizations as part of a bid to pursue their case.
Am Sam Ath told RFA that the court “is applying a double standard” by claiming that authorities cannot locate the people responsible for attacking the land activists, when witnesses claim the security forces were at fault.
“This is an injustice for the victims, who were violently and intentionally attacked by the police and security forces, causing many serious injuries,” he said.
“Still, the courts claim that the perpetrators of the attack are unknown. This is a form of impunity.”